"This shocking revelation ought to send a chill down the spine of every American."
Senator Russell Feingold, December 17, 2005
As reported by the New York Times on Friday, "Months after the September 11 attacks, President Bush secretly authorized the National Security Agency (NSA) to eavesdrop on Americans and others inside the United States to search for evidence of terrorist activity without the court-approved warrants ordinarily required for domestic spying."
A senior intelligence officer says Bush personally and repeatedly gave the NSA permission for these taps--more than three dozen times since October 2001. Each time, the White House counsel and the Attorney General--whose job it is to guard and defend our civil liberties and freedoms--certified the lawfulness of the program. (It is useful here to note "The Yoo Factor": The domestic spying program was justified by a "classified legal opinion" written by former Justice Department official John Yoo, the same official who wrote a memo arguing that interrogation techniques only constitute torture if they are "equivalent in intensity to...organ failure, impairment of bodily function or even death.")
Illegally spying on Americans is chilling--even for this Administration. Moreover, as Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies, told the Times, "the secret order may amount to the president authorizing criminal activity." Some officials at the NSA agree. According to the Times, "Some agency officials wanted nothing to do with the program, apparently fearful of participating in an illegal operation." Others were "worried that the program might come under scrutiny by Congressional or criminal investigators if Senator John Kerry, the Democratic nominee, was elected President."
It's always a fight to find out what the government doesn't want us to know, and this Administration and its footsoldiers have used every means available to undermine journalists' ability to exercise their First Amendment function of holding power accountable. But compounding the Administration's double-dealing, the media has been largely complicit in the face of White House mendacity. David Sirota puts it more bluntly in a recent entry from his blog: "We are watching the media being used as a tool of state power in overriding the very laws that are supposed to confine state power and protect American citizens."
Consider this: the New York Times says it "delayed publication" of the NSA spying story for a year. The paper says it acceded to White House arguments that publishing the article "could jeopardize continuing investigations and alert would-be-terrorists that they might be under scrutiny."
Despite Administration demands though, it was reported in yesterday's Washington Post that the decision by Times editor Bill Keller to withhold the article caused friction within the Times' Washington bureau, according to people close to the paper. Some reporters and editors in New York and in the paper's DC bureau had apparently pushed for earlier publication. In an explanatory statement, Keller issued the excuse that, "Officials also assured senior editors of the Times that a variety of legal checks had been imposed that satisfied everyone involved that the program raised no legal questions." This from a paper, which as First Amendment lawyer Martin Garbus pointed out in a letter to editor "rejected similar arguments when it courageously pub;ished the Pentagon Papers over the government's false objections that it would endanger our foreign policy as well as the lives of individuals." The Times, Garbus went on to argue, "owes its readers more. The Bush Administration's record for truthfulness is not such that one should rely on its often meaningless and vague assertions."
Readers and citizens deserve to know why the New York Times capitulated to the White House's request? It is true that Friday's revelations of this previously unknown, illegal domestic spying program helped stop the Patriot Act reauthorization. But what if the Times had published its story before the election? And what other stories have been held up due to Adminsitration cajoling, pressure, threats and intimidation?
The question of how this Administration threatens the workings of a free press, a cornerstone of democracy, remains a central one. Every week brings new evidence of White House attempts to delegitimize the press's role as a watchdog of government abuse, an effective counter to virtually unchecked executive power.
Last month, for example, the Washington Post published Dana Priest's extraordinary report about the CIA's network of prisons in Eastern Europe for suspected terrorists. Priest's reporting helped push passage of a ban on the metastasizing use of torture. But, as with the New York Times, the Post acknowledged that it had acceded to government requests to withhold the names of the countries in which the black site prisons exist.
How many other cases are there of news outlets choosing to honor government requests for secrecy over the journalistic duty of informing the public about government abuse and wrongdoing?
Never has the need for an independent press been greater. Never has the need to know what is being done in our name been greater. As Bill Moyers said in an important speech delivered on the 20th anniversary of the National Security Archive, a dedicated band of truth-tellers, "...There has been nothing in our time like the Bush Administration's obsession with secrecy." Moyers added. "It's an old story: the greater the secrecy, the deeper the corruption."
Federation of American Scientists secrecy specialist Steven Aftergood bluntly says, "an even more aggressive form of government information control has gone unenumerated and often unrecognized in the Bush era, as government agencies have restricted access to unclassified information in libraries, archives, websites and official databases." This practice, Aftergood adds, "also accords neatly with the Bush Administration's preference for unchecked executive authority."
"Information is the oxygen of democracy," Aftergood rightly insists. This Administration is trying to cut off the supply. Journalists and media organizations must find a way to restore their role as effective watchdogs, as checks on an executive run amok.